Harvard Beats Students' COVID-19 Tuition Refund Suit

By Chris Villani
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Law360 (June 21, 2021, 11:39 AM EDT) -- Harvard University students could not have reasonably expected that the school would guarantee in-person learning even during a global pandemic, a federal judge ruled Monday, tossing a proposed class action seeking refunds for classes forced online by COVID-19.

Harvard University defeated students' claims that promotional materials touting the benefits of its campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, amounts to a binding contract to offer in-person services regardless of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Collin Binkley)

U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani said Harvard's promotional materials touting the benefits of its Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus, hands-on learning, networking opportunities and other perks of attending the renowned Ivy League school do not amount to a binding contract to offer these services regardless of the circumstances.

There are no specific documents or statements in which those promises were made to students, Judge Talwani wrote in her 19-page order dismissing the students' suit. And, even if the students could show an implied contract promising in-person and on-campus learning during normal times, the judge noted, "Spring 2020 was not a normal time."

"Where plaintiffs have provided virtually no direct language from the promotional and other materials, and have not alleged that Harvard charged less money for online instruction in degree-granting programs, the amended complaint fails to plausibly allege facts suggesting that Harvard would reasonably expect students to understand from such material that Harvard had promised to provide in-person instruction," Judge Talwani wrote, "even where, during a global pandemic, the governor and public health officials dictated otherwise."

The ruling comes a little more than a month after another Massachusetts federal judge tossed a similar suit filed by Northeastern University students, with both jurists finding that the schools had never promised they would not modify the educational experience in extraordinary times.

Judge Talwani also threw out claims filed by a law student who said he was forced to either interrupt his education by taking a year off or reenrolling last fall and paying full freight for online instruction. He made his decision with eyes wide open, the judge found.

By enrolling while the crisis was still active, he "accepted the terms of the contract for the Fall 2020 semester, including the terms that instruction would be online only and that costs would be the same as the 2019-2020 school year; he has no reasonable expectation otherwise," Judge Talwani said.

Other claims in the suit, including one that Harvard unjustly padded its coffers at the students' expense, also fail because of the lack of a binding contract guaranteeing in-person instruction, Judge Talwani found.

A Harvard representative declined to comment.

Counsel for the students didn't immediately return requests for comment Monday morning.

Harvard argued in October that the case should be dismissed, claiming it had the discretion to switch formats amid an unprecedented crisis. The students pushed back, pointing out that Harvard touts its "unparalleled resources to the university community, including libraries, laboratories, museums, and research centers to support scholarly work in nearly any field or discipline" and "access to almost every extracurricular program imaginable."

"These statements created the reasonable expectation Harvard would provide an in-person education," the students argued.

The proposed class action was filed in May 2020 by three students who were enrolled in the spring semester and had to leave campus when the pandemic took hold and schools abruptly closed their physical doors.

The students are represented by Alec M. Leslie of Bursor & Fisher PA, Steve W. Berman, Daniel J. Kurowski, Kristie A. LaSalle and Whitney K. Siehl of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, David Pastor of Pastor Law Office LLP, and LeElle Slifer, Warren Tavares Burns and Russell G. Herman of Burns Charest LLP.

Harvard is represented by Anton Metlitsky, Jennifer B. Sokoler and Matthew Powers of O'Melveny & Myers LLP, and Rebecca M. O'Brien and Victoria L. Steinberg of Todd & Weld LLP.

The case is Barkhordar et al. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, case number 1:20-cv-10968, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

Barkhordar et al v. President and Fellows of Harvard College


Case Number

1:20-cv-10968

Court

Massachusetts

Nature of Suit

Contract: Other

Judge

Indira Talwani

Date Filed

May 20, 2020

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